Analyzing the End: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the Flyers' 2020 Playoff Run
If the final FFR of the 2019-20 season was the eulogy, consider this the autopsy. The most successful Flyers season in eight years bitterly concluded with a frustrating 4-0 loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the New York Islanders.
Though the Flyers accomplished my pre-season goal of winning their first playoff series since 2012, the ending to their season was certainly tough to handle. Losing in the playoffs always is, but it felt like the Flyers had something more to give after an outstanding to the regular season and earning the number one seed for the playoffs with a perfect 3-0-0 round robin performance.
Once the Stanley Cup Playoffs started, it seemed like the Flyers never had their A-game. Sure, they beat the Montreal Canadiens in the first round and nearly overcame a 3-1 series deficit against the Islanders, winning three overtime games in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history. Yet it never felt like the Flyers were the true Cup contender many hyped them up to be.
Like with most teams, there isn't one clear reason why the Flyers fell just one win short of reaching the Eastern Conference Final. There also isn't one clear reason why the Flyers won more games this year in any playoffs since 2010. Now that there's been time to compress, let's look back at the run that was and see where the Flyers excelled, and where they need to improve to ensure they can embark on a deeper run in 2021.
There's no doubt who the Flyers best player was in these playoffs. Despite an ordinary performance in Game 7 against New York and being pulled once (nearly twice) against the Canadiens, the Flyers biggest strength in this tournament was their biggest weakness in their last two playoff appearances: goaltending. Brian Elliott played well when he was needed, but Carter Hart expectedly carried the load, and showed few signs of buckling under the pressure.
Sure, there were some reasons to question how Hart might fare in these playoffs. Hart was one of the worst performances of any goalie in the league this year away from the Wells Fargo Center, and even though these games lacked most of the elements that make a road game difficult, they also lacked those that make home games a little easier. Hart is also just 22 years old, in his first full season as an NHL goaltender, and was a playoff rookie.
But in reality, Hart has been a bright spot all season long. Yes, his road performance was brutal, but that was in a very small sample size, and he actually had slightly better numbers on the road as a rookie (.928 save percentage, compared to .912 at home in 2018-19). While Hart lacked NHL playoff experience, he certainly didn't lack big moment experience entering these playoffs. From the WHL playoffs with the Everett Silvertips to winning a gold at the World Junior Championships as Canada's starting goalie, Hart proved he can handle the bright lights long before the bubble.
Once inside it, Hart showed that luster hadn't worn off in the slightest. Hart put up a very strong playoff performance, recording a .926 save percentage and saving 4.21 goals than expected based on the chances he faced. With the Flyers facing elimination in overtime in Game 5 and double overtime in Game 6, Hart had to be perfect to keep the Flyers season alive. In those two sudden death situations, Hart stopped eighteen straight shots that accounted for 1.63 expected goals. For the most part, Hart looked unflappable, and was definitely the Flyers' most consistent producer.
Forward Depth's Performance
One of the biggest reasons for the Flyers regular season success was their outstanding forward depth and ability to role four lines. Even though the personnel wasn't always ideal (we'll get to that later), a lot of the Flyers depth players, especially up front, came up clutch on several occasions.
For starters, Scott Laughton led the Flyers in goals with five. This wasn't a case of quantity over quality either - Laughton scored the OT winner in Game 5 on a nice deflection, and then scored basically a short-handed goal to tie Game 6 in the middle of the third period, undressing Semyon Varlamov with a beautiful deke. Despite suffering a high-ankle sprain in the round-robin, Michael Raffl also performed admirably, scoring five points in nine games. Joel Farabee was healthy scratched a few times, but also came up with some huge goals in Montreal (GWG in Game 1, third period tying goal in Game 5) and looked better in the Islanders series. Tyler Pitlick and Nicolas Aube-Kubel looked like their usual tenacious, outstanding forechecking selves, despite the former being buried analytically and the latter dealing with a bruise on his knee. This group of players did much more good than bad for the Flyers playoff run.
First Period Play
In a pretty big surprise, one of the Flyers' biggest regular season weaknesses became one of their greatest playoff strengths. In the season, the Flyers were a minus-7 in the opening frame, allowing 68 first period goals, tied with Buffalo for fifth most in the league. Not exactly great company. However, the Flyers were a different team to start games in the playoffs, outscoring the Canadiens and Islanders by a combined 11-8 margin. In fact, three of their best periods in the second round came in the first period (Game 2, Game 3, and Game 6). The Flyers regular season play style of dumping the puck in a lot to wear down defenses led to a lot of chances against in the first period. Though changing style was a necessary but not welcomed adjustment, at least it paid off in one area.
AV was runner-up for the Jack Adams for a reason. The Flyers wouldn't have gotten to the round robin or the one seed without the stellar work Vigneault did behind the bench from the moment he was hired to the end of the regular season. However, when the Flyers playoff run started, Vigneault seemed to have mistaken his predecessor Dave Hakstol's notebook for his own.
Start things off with a more than healthy dose of Nate Thompson, AV's personal Pierre Eduoard-Bellemare clone (I'm sorry, that's offensive - sorry Bellsy, you deserve better). Not only did Thompson dress for every single playoff game, but he consistently played over double-digit minutes and was tasked with facing top-end competition. Though Thompson actually did a decent job against other team's top talent, just having him on the ice was essentially Vigneault punting a shift. Thompson wasn't on the ice for a single Flyers goal in either of the two playoff rounds the Flyers played in, and he was caved in at 5-on-5. It was a weird shift from his usually aggressive mentality that led the Flyers to the sixth best record in the NHL. Combine that with consistently choosing Robert Hagg over Shayne Gostisbehere, a decision that directly led to the Isles' first-goal of Game 4 when Hagg's poor puck-moving was exposed, and AV failed to optimize the Flyers' lineup on basically a daily basis.
Sadly, that wasn't his only mistake. Vigneault went an imperfect 0-for-3 in challenges against the Islanders. His first one looked legitimate to me - it seemed like Brock Nelson was offsides, but there was never an angle that showed Nelson offside and the puck over the blue-line, but based on Josh Bailey's stick position, it certainly looked to be. The second one was also defendable - although Mat Barzal was originally pushed into the crease, he certainly took his time getting out (even though it was Tyler Pitlick who more directly prevented Hart from being able to make the stop). The third was absolutely awful - Casey Cizikas made contact with Hart, but it was clearly caused by a Justin Braun trip. Adding insult to injury, the Islanders scored on the ensuing power-play, putting the Flyers behind in an elimination game, a deficit they almost didn't climb out of. Vigneault didn't give the Flyers the best chance to win, which your coach has to do to win in the playoffs.
Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers
Not to toot my own horn, but I think I absolutely nailed it in the Round 1 preview when I wrote, "the Flyers will go as far as their second defense pairing of Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers goes." The pair someone held their own against the Canadiens, finishing with uninspiring analytics but with Myers scoring a deflating goal to put Game 4 out of reach. Against Montreal, the Flyers could get away with their second pair not meeting their excellent level of play from the end of the regular season.
But that changed quickly against the smart New York Islanders, who are frankly a better team than the Canadiens. Sanheim and Myers, who entered the bubble with four games of playoff experience (all from Sanheim in the 2018 playoffs), and unlike Hart, their inexperience showed. The two just looked out of sync and overwhelmed. Sanheim's dynamic puck skills went invisible, and Myers' propensity for bad decision making went from occasional blip to frequent frustration. Yes, Myers scored the overtime winner in Game 2, which was an amazing moment. But it was a Sanheim turnover in the final 2:30 of the 3rd that necessitated extra play in the first place. In the future, there's no reason why these two can't dominate in the playoffs like they did this past regular season and in Lehigh Valley in 2018. But in the present, they weren't good enough, and Vigneault's decision to stick with them proved costly in the end.
Every Other Defenseman Not Named Ivan Provorov
Sanheim and Myers get their own special category because of my pre-playoff prediction, but it's not like the rest of the blue-line was a beacon of light amidst their stormy waters. Ivan Provorov is the lone exception - he wasn't perfect, but Provy definitely had the best playoffs of any Flyer blue-liner, leading the backend with eight points, scoring the last goal of the Flyers' season in double overtime of Game 6. He gets a pass.
Everyone else - shame, pity, and scorn. Matt Niskanen looked a step behind the whole playoffs, with poor decision making directly leading to both Islanders' goals in Game 4 that broke a tie and gave New York control of the series. Robert Hagg was his usual offensive liability, blocking shots and laying meaningless hits ad nauseam as the other team skated laps around him in the Flyers end. Shayne Gostisbehere somehow wasn't good enough to beat him, despite a few strong showings. Justin Braun failed to show chemistry with either of them and defaulted to the "generic defensive-defenseman" mode we were afraid of when the Flyers acquired him (which ironically, or perhaps fittingly, might be what ends his Flyers tenure). The Flyers fell from being an elite defensive team in the regular season, allowing the fewest shots per game in the league (28.7) to pedestrian at best (30.6 shots against per game, 11th in the playoffs) and hemmed in for days at worst.
Overall 5-on-5 Play
During the regular season, the Flyers were a very strong possession team that usually outshot and out-chanced their opponents at 5-on-5. While special teams certainly matter, and they were a big part in the Flyers downfall, the majority of hockey takes place at 5-on-5. If you can win that area, you can usually count on winning a game. But if you finish 18th out of 24 teams with a 47.58% Corsi and 44.65% Expected Goals For, you can usually count on losing a game, and that's just what happened to the Flyers in these playoffs.
In fairness, Montreal was actually an incredible regular season possession team, trailing only Vegas in Corsi and Expected Goals For% during the regular season. But the Flyers seriously couldn't control play against the Islanders? New York was bottom 10 in xGF% and THIRD WORST in the league in Corsi, trailing only the Rangers and Senators, teams who combined for zero playoff wins (but two lottery wins, which may be even more important). Facing two teams who play very different styles - Montreal is extremely aggressive, the Islanders are very passive - the Flyers failed to adapt to both, and it felt like they were holding on by a thread way too often, before said thread inevitably snapped ten minutes in to Game 7.
Through the Flyers' first ten playoff games, Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny, James van Riemsdyk, Shayne Gostisbehere and Matt Niskanen ($31,025,000 combined salary) were outscored by Nate Thompson ($1 million). Though Giroux, van Riemsdyk, and Niskanen scored in Game 5, and JVR added another goal in Game 6, it unsurprisingly ultimately proved to be too little, too late.
This isn't the first time Giroux hasn't shown up for a recent playoff run. In 2016, Giroux scored just one assist. In 2018, Giroux put up just one goal and two assists. He was a little bit better, scoring eight points in 16 playoff games this year. But scoring just one goal is unacceptable. Ditto for van Riemsdyk (2) and Konecny (0), who both looked invisible far too often (oxymoron alert). JVR was a healthy scratch multiple times in the playoffs, and Konecny seemed to be bullied around physically, as the Flyers leading regular-season scorer failed to tally even one goal in these playoffs.
But they weren't the only ones at fault. Kevin Hayes was gashed defensively in the Montreal series, being on the ice for more expected goals against than any other forward. Jake Voracek was a beast against the Habs, but fell silent in Round 2, registering just one assist. And despite receiving a much heavier dose of offensive face-offs than he did in the regular season (which should have been the one positive of the Thompson decision), Sean Couturier failed to produce as well, proving incapable of caring a line in these playoffs like he has each of the last three seasons. Of course, the torn MCL didn't help matters, but I actually thought Coots looked good in Game 7 - his struggles came before then, when he was still at (or at least close to) 100%.
If I never have to see this power-play again, it will still be too soon. For just the fourth time in franchise history, and the first time in a seven game series, the Flyers power-play failed to score so much as one goal against the Islanders. Save for a breakthrough performance in Game 5 against Montreal (which was aided by a 5-minute major when the Flyers scored 50% of their playoff power-play goals), the PP was absolutely horrendous, and I'm genuinely surprised they didn't allow a shortie in the playoffs.
To be fair, the coaching staff did try numerous personnel changes to get things going. Jake Voracek started as the bumper, but then moved back to his usual spot on the right boards. TK had some PP1 time early. JVR ended the playoffs back in his usual PP1-net front role. Claude Giroux moved back to the right near the end of the New York series. But the entire playoffs, the Flyers' puck movement never looked crisp. Their entries were predictable and often unsuccessful. Once they did get into the zone, the power-play failed to generate much of anything, save for an occasional deflection or that Kevin Hayes shot off the crossbar in Game 6. It's one thing to be snakebitten or run into a hot goalie, but it's another to be about as aesthetically pleasing as diarrhea. The Flyers looked like the latter far too often.
Like Giroux's struggles, this is a problem that has plagued the Flyers in each of their last three runs. Since 2016, only the Red Wings have a worse cumulative playoff power-play percentage than the Flyers' 7.2%. Break it down by individual runs, and the Flyers have accounted for the 77th (17-18, 9.5%), 82nd (19-20, 7.7%), and 86th (15-16, 4.2%) ranked power-plays out of the 88 different playoff teams in the last five seasons. The Flyers have had a different power-play coach for each run. They've had different personnel for each run. And yet the same mistakes keep repeating themselves. Part of this burden falls on power-play coach Michel Therrien, and part of is a continuation on the stars didn't produce narrative. But the end result is still unacceptable.
Third Period Performance
If the Flyers' first period turnaround was a successfully played UNO reverse card, the one they played in the third period turned into a plus-four card slapping them right in the face. In the regular season, the Flyers used their forecheck to wear down opponents over the first 40 minutes, before turning on the jets in the third. The Flyers 87 third period goals ranked third in the entire league, trailing only the Rangers and Capitals. Their gaudy +26 goal differential led the league running away.
That all faltered in the playoffs. Against Montreal, the Flyers could at least get away with saying they were legitimately playing strong defensively, even if it came at the expense of going for insurance. However, the Flyers were absolutely slaughtered in the third period against the Islanders. They entered the third period of Game 1 coming off a dominant second trailing by just one. Three unanswered goals later, the game ended as a blowout. In Game 2, the Flyers blew a 3-1 lead with an absolute turtle in the final 10 minutes of the third. History repeated itself in Game 5, as the Flyers once again choked away a 3-1 lead, this time one they held in the final five minutes of the third period.
In between, they failed to comeback with an uninspired Game 3, and they blew a golden opportunity to draw even in the series, turning a 1-1 tie into a 3-2 defeat. In Game 6, the Flyers literally didn't take one shot until nearly the halfway mark of the period. Thankfully, that shot was Scott Laughton's breakaway goal, but it doesn't excuse the Isles' 14-4 shot domination when it was the Flyers facing elimination. And the Flyers hardly even showed up for the third period of Game 7 mustering a meek 0.32 expected goals for, a figure the Islanders almost doubled.
It was incredibly confusing and even more frustrating to see the once dominant Philadelphia Flyers not look like themselves for thirteen consecutive games. Not once in the Stanley Cup Playoffs did the Flyers play a complete, dominant game. Somehow, the #12 seed Montreal Canadiens and #7 seed New York Islanders kept the Flyers off their game night in and night out, with only brief lapses that the Flyers failed to take advantage of far too often. Some of that should be credited to both opponents bringing their A-games; the Canadiens beat the Penguins and the Islanders beat Florida and Washington for a reason, and they showed their might against the Flyers on a frequent basis.
A combination of ineffective play from the Flyers top players, especially on the power-play and in the third period, an non-optimal performance behind the bench by Alain Vigneault, and a sharp decline for almost everybody on the backend, specifically the in-over-their-heads duo of Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim, did the Flyers in. Though their resiliency and starts were something positive to take out of this run, not to mention Carter Hart proving what we should have already known (if we didn't know it already).
Falling to the Islanders in Game 7 of the second round is not a shameful way to go out. Objectively, this is the Flyers' best season since their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010; it's the last time the Flyers won more than seven games in one playoff performance. This was never supposed to be the Flyers' year to truly contend for the Stanley Cup, whereas the Islanders went all in, trading a first, two seconds, and a third to acquire JG Pageau and Andy Greene, supplementing the core that took them to the second round last season.
At the same time, as Chuck Fletcher told the media, you never know how many chances you are going to get. The Flyers are a pretty young team with a tremendous prospect group, but they're also facing a pretty significant cap crunch and may lose Justin Braun, Tyler Pitlick, or/and Brian Elliott (not to mention their deadline additions Derek Grant and Nate Thompson) to unrestricted free agency, or a player like Shayne Gostisbehere to a trade. The Flyers should have been able to put up a better fight than they did. Their stars should have produced more. AV should have scratched Nate Thompson every once in a while.
About half of the Flyers had never played in an NHL playoff game. Even more had never been past the first round. The Flyers' young players no doubt gained invaluable experience, and some of the long-tenured veterans were given a reminder of what it takes to win deep in the playoffs, just in case they forgot. Though it was sad to see the Flyers' run come to an end, it was certainly understandable. What will set this group apart from their predecessors will be how they respond to this failure. Each of the last four Flyers teams to make the playoffs missed them the next year. The Flyers have the pieces to ensure that doesn't happen, but they'll need to learn from these mistakes to ensure a return to the high point of this season, let alone make an even deeper run a reality.